Platform: PlayStation 4
Review Date: 3/21/21
This delightfully creepy prequel to "Little Nightmares" (2017) features a young boy named Mono who wears a paper bag on his head. The game opens with Mono in a forest, sitting next to an abandoned TV set. The look and feel is immediately reminiscent of "Limbo" (2010) and "Inside" (2016), and the forest quickly becomes a dangerous and menacing place. He soon finds himself in a hunter's cabin, where he discovers Six locked in the basement. He helps her escape and both of them make their way to an ominous tower that's broadcasting a mysterious signal and enslaving the adult population. The horrific ending is an emotional sucker punch that leaves you trying to make sense of the entire experience.
The game looks fantastic and the art direction creates a heavy sense of dread and doom. It also continues its fascination with discarded shoes. The game is longer than the original and the environments are more varied, which helps keep it fresh. Similar to the original, each chapter features a boss monster that's a grotesque caricature of a certain occupation. These include a hunter, a school teacher, and a doctor. While they're certainly creepy and unsettling, they don't evoke the same sense of horror as the janitor and chefs from the original.
The gameplay is essentially the same, except that Mono can wield weapons like hammers, pipes, and axes. However, using them is tricky because they're so heavy and require a long wind up, which leaves you momentarily defenseless. Getting the timing right when a school bully or severed hand is chasing you can be frustrating. The adrenaline-pumping chase sequences require perfect timing and offer no margin for error, which has you repeating them several times. Fortunately, the checkpoint system is very generous and the game reloads almost instantly, which is a vast improvement over the original. The puzzles are mostly straight forward, but there were numerous times I had to refer to a walkthrough. Once you recognize the patterns, it becomes easier to read the environment and deduce what needs to be done. Embarrassingly, I got stuck very early in the game when I first entered the hunter's house. I spent about 20 minutes poring over the room looking for an exit, and I even went outside again to look for more clues. It turns out that the door was slightly ajar and all you had to do was walk through the opening, but that wasn't visually obvious. There are also a series of puzzles in the last chapter that rely entirely on audio cues, which isn't intuitive and can be problematic if you're hard of hearing like I am. I only encountered a couple of bugs during my playthrough, but neither were fatal. For some reason, the very first time you're given a rope to swing on, I literally couldn't do it. The subtitles mocked me the entire time telling me to jump and grab the rope, and nothing worked. Whether a glitch or by design, I was able to bypass this altogether by climbing on a log and jumping across instead. Another bug affected Mono's walking animation and made his legs move in a very bizarre and unnatural fashion, which also affected his walking speed. Reloading the game fixed that.
Having Six as a companion adds another dimension of gameplay. She often serves as a guide and helps you figure out some of the puzzles. She can also help Mono push and pull heavy objects, and can boost him up to reach higher spots. The trickiest move is making long jumps, where Six can grab Mono's hand to help him get across. This is where the control scheme falters and becomes unreasonably awkward. The controls for running, jumping, and grabbing are all on the right side of the controller, and you have to figure out how to press all of them simultaneously while using your left thumb to propel yourself forward. Thankfully, you only have to perform this maneuver a few times, but it's a crucial storytelling device and bonding element. Mono can also call out to Six and hold her hand similar to "Ico" (2001), but it's a move that you use only once in the game, which is odd. Also similar to "Ico," the interaction between Mono and Six is overly rough, and he yanks her around in an uncomfortably violent fashion. Finally, there are a number of collectible hats that Mono can find and wear, as well as a dozen or so hidden spirits known as "glitching remains." Finding all of them unlocks a second ending that leads directly into the events of the original game.
While it mostly just offers up more of the same, I enjoyed my time with "Little Nightmares II" quite a bit. The story isn't as abstract as the original, but still raises a lot of questions and forces you to come up with your own conclusions. More than anything, it reminded me of a trip to "Silent Hill." The creepy wilderness, hunter's cabin, elementary school, hospital, and crumbling city all fit within the "Silent Hill" theme and aesthetic. There's even an Otherworld when Mono enters a TV set. The hospital mannequins definitely have a "Silent Hill" vibe, along with the use of a flashlight. Other visual nods include destroyed roads, disgusting toilets, mannequin body parts, wheelchairs, fog and rain, and a general state of decay everywhere you go. Thematically, Mono reminded me a lot of James Sunderland from "Silent Hill 2" (2001) and his journey bears several similarities. It's probably the closest thing we'll get to a new "Silent Hill" game, since the franchise has been dormant for nearly ten years now (not counting the odd slot machine that came out in 2019).